A robot always has two faces. Whether drones or machines inspired by the animal kingdom or by human beings, robots’ superhuman precision and their ever more advanced capabilities tend to frighten us. Perhaps we would see them differently if they took on the invaluable role of lifesavers. Thanks to the following projects in development, robots could soon have a Superman effect on us.
We are in April 2018 and there is a forest fire nearby. Cassie is on the scene and is being remotely controlled. This bipedal robot developed by Jessy Grizzle, a University of Michigan researcher, is “making steps towards becoming the firefighter of tomorrow” Aaron James (one of the Robotics Engineers to test Cassie) tells Wired. Compared to firefighters made of flesh and bone, Cassie can walk through burning zones, carry heavy things, and does not get fatigued. It is also able to use a Segway without any problem. According to Aaron James “there is still a long way to go” until the robot can recognise and save people by itself, but its open source based technology will no doubt make progress quick.
In the summer of 2017, more than six years after the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, a 30 cm long device starts delving into the bowels of reactor 3 in search of radioactive fuel. Equipped with five propellers and two cameras, Little Sunfish is clad for progress in the dark, underwater, and under heavy radiation. For a mission as precise as the one in Fukushima, it is connected to a control room. The array of sensors which it carries allow it to also perceive many elements in its environment. Therefore, it does not need much in order to become independent of human guidance. Wired tells us that no human could survive in this environment, which is why it is up to robots like Little Sunfish to repair the damages caused by human beings in Fukushima.
Man is powerless against the ocean. A drone took over the fight for us on the 18th of January 2018 in the south of Brisbane. While testing the model, rescuer Jai Sheridan received an alert call; two men were dragged by currents and were being battered by waves as high as 3 meters. The device, guided by both man and GPS, was sent to the the men’s level and dropped a lifebuoy that inflated as soon as it hits water. The device then guided them safely to the shoreline. In The Conversation Robotics researcher Alex Ramirez-Serrano alleges that “the real challenge remains to develop rescue robots capable of independent decision-making and unsupervised work in chaotic and confined spaces.” Nevertheless, it is a considerable advance.
Once again, Alex Ramirez-Serrano stresses that “drones can already be installed with an auto-pilot and person recognition system”. They can identify dangerous situations, like the presence of explosive gases, and can carry sensors able to detect obstacles as well as indicate humidity levels. Even objects hidden behind rubble don’t escape their sensors’ sweeping. Therefore, independent robots’ first tasks could be to collect data, move debris, and even provide urgent medical assistance. For this to happen, Ramirez-Serrano observes that “we would first need better artificial intelligence”.
Tug would be unable to make its way through to the center of Fukushima. However, Wired tells us that the white and printer-like robot helps hospital personnel. Just like a car on auto-pilot, it uses lasers to avoid obstacles. Prescriptions and advice are still the in the hands of the doctors. However, in hospitals that are short of staff, the food and medicine delivered by Tug could very well save someone’s life. That is, if that person’s life has not already been saved by another robot… Robotic Engineers agree that the boom in life-saving robots will happen over the next decade. We cannot wait.